On October 8th, I left for a two-week US tour. It was a decent-sized oval, stretching across eleven states, with about four hours of driving each day. It was my fourth tour of 2016. Two weeks on the road, just me in a rental car, alone, for 3,000 miles. This is some of what I saw, heard, ate, drank, and learned on the road. Absolutely none of this is in any particular order, and even less of it makes sense.
The New Roustabouts of Indianapolis
I have my friend Chris Stelloh to thank for the hookup. After fixing his bass sometime over the summer, he introduced me to Joshua Powell over an email, and explained that I should absolutely go play a gig in Indianapolis. Two months later, I played a completely unplugged show at Indy Hostel with Justin Duenne and Jonny Carroll, all organized by Powell. The show itself was sparsely attended, but the night proved to be one of the more interesting evenings on the tour. While Justin, Jonny, Joshua, and I are all professional, gigging musicians, we each have some very different approaches to how we go about making a living from music. Naturally, in order to facilitate the discussion, we went to the nearest diner, then to the bar.
Peppy’s is a family-owned diner in the Fountain Square neighborhood, serving breakfast at all hours of the day. I admire a menu that comes with an understanding. By walking in the door at midnight, the establishment understands you are probably a starving, broke, good-for-nothing guitarist. Also, by the establishment allowing you in the door, you understand that this place is taking you in, giving you an unreasonably-sized omelette, and that you should be a gracious guest. Biologists call this a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
J. Clyde’s Pub is a bar, just off East 10th Street, named after two DC bars, J. Paul’s and Clyde’s, in Georgetown. J. Clyde’s resembles neither of these bars, but is a marvelous watering hole in its own right. The only thing that makes Miller High Life a truly enjoyable drinking experience is to serve it in a chilled pint glass, which J. Clyde’s does with considerable grace. The night concluded with Joshua and his housemates getting me unspeakably high before letting me pass out on a mattress in their living room. I made absolutely no money from that show in Indianapolis, I don’t care, and I can’t wait to go back.
Nashville Hot Chicken
Earlier this year, KFC made a serious attempt at Nashville-style Hot Chicken. It didn’t go over so well. It might be because Kentucky Fried Chicken puts more effort into their funny ad campaigns than their chicken. It might also be because Nashville Hot Chicken done in the authentic fashion will sincerely fuck your day up.
A good curry, or a good chili, will hit you with a slow burn of heat. It builds if you keep eating, but dies down if you don’t fan the flames with more of the dish. Nashville Hot Chicken doesn’t do this; the heat comes back in waves. You’ll have a bite, get smacked on the palate with a rush of heat, then let it die down before the next bite, only to have the heat come back twice as strong. It’s an unbelievable experience, and leaves the subject feeling euphoric at the end.
Nashville Hot Chicken is more of a method than a dish– it’s just fried chicken, but covered in spices and fiery seasonings, yielding a considerably “hot” version of country-style fried chicken. It’s brined, then battered, then breaded, then fried. Just before it’s completely cooked through, it’s removed from the oil, and dredged in lard and cayenne pepper, then dropped right back into the fryer for a moment longer. It’s served typically with a side of white bread and pickles. The best two side dishes for this painful and delicious monstrosity are obviously potato salad and baked beans. The former is served chilled, or at room temperature, which calms the napalm sensation on the tongue. The later has just enough sweetness to reassure you, just before diving back into the inferno.
Over the three US tours I’ve had this year, I made it a point to try Nashville Hot Chicken every time I pass through that town. I want the euphoria. I want to feel at peace with the universe around me. I need spicy. Here’s where I’ve eaten:
- Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish: I believe this place used to be an auto garage, or tire shop. It’s likely it was something else before the fryers were installed. History doesn’t matter when you bite into the chicken here, though. Time stands still, the walls melt, and there is no way to wipe the sweat off your brow. It’s an intense, dry heat, mixed with salt, which makes you salivate, thereby spreading the heat around the inside of your mouth. This is not for the faint of heart.
- Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack: Located in a strip mall, Prince’s is widely regarded as the origin point for Hot Chicken. It’s impossible to say who definitively created the dish, or who started serving it to customers first. However, one thing is undeniable– Prince’s certainly has better press than the other spots. You should either call ahead, or wait patiently in line for an hour for your chance to eat fire.
- Hattie B’s: This one is a little complicated to explain, so try to walk with me here. To be extremely clear, there is nothing wrong with Hattie B’s, and there is nothing wrong with turning a successful restaurant into a chain. There’s also nothing wrong with taking a somewhat provocative thing, and make a more accessible version of it. Elvis did this with Rock and Roll. There’s nothing outwardly wrong with Elvis. Accessibility comes at a cost, though. Elvis sold millions of records, while the Black artists he covered were largely forgotten. Similarly, Hattie B’s cranks out a thoroughly enjoyable and accessible version of Hot Chicken, but has opened their storefronts in more affluent neighborhoods. This means White folks don’t have to go to the “rougher” parts of town (read: mostly Black neighborhoods) to enjoy Hot Chicken. We sometimes create bubbles without even realizing it.
- Champy’s: As long as we’re talking of fried chicken, though, it would be unjust to write about this tour and not include Champy’s Chicken of Alabaster, Alabama. This isn’t Hot Chicken– it’s a much older recipe, done without as much flash and flare. The real attractor at this spot is how Whitney and Sterling have paired their chicken with a well-curated jukebox, a stash of local beers, and an all-ages all-inclusive environment. Champy’s might not have the hottest chicken, but they have a family-friendly dining room, and a solidified position in their community. If you want spicy, they have a rack of hot sauces, though. I recommend Dave’s Insanity.
Lon Eldridge and the Sounds of 78’s
Most of us understand that there was once a great medium of recorded music, wherein grooves were cut into a flat disc of vinyl, and a needle running through the grooves produces a sound. It’s immortal, in its own way. Vinyl is even cool enough to make a comeback in recent years. Everyone from Jack White to Urban Outfitters is hopping on the vinyl bandwagon.
We see a lot of LPs these days, but not so many singles. This is largely because pressing vinyl is currently very expensive, and it makes more sense for bands to press a full album instead of a single. Used 33 RPM LPs (“long-play”) records are physically larger, and can hold more music than their 45 RPM counterparts. There were other speeds, other sizes, and other types of records being made in the 20th Century, but 33s and 45s are the two formats we’re familiar with today.
There’s an often-overlooked, but important variety of record, though, and its golden age lasted longer than that of the LP. 78 RPM records were the first records to be mass-produced, the first to be made widely accessible, and the first to generate an industry around recorded music. They changed the world. And now, a lot of them are rotting away in basements all over the world. Despite being a groundbreaking means of storing audio for 35 years, 78s were largely forgotten with the advent of the LP.
Not all of them, though. Thanks to guys like Lon Eldridge, a native son of Chattanooga, some of these records will be heard almost a century after their initial pressings. Lon is an avid collector, currently sifting through a new collection he’s acquired. After a house show at his place, his girlfriend came over with homemade Rice Krispie treats and red wine. We spun records.
Chased by Dogs in Guntown, Mississippi
Guntown, roughly twenty minutes from Tupelo, is a town of about 2,000 people in Lee County, Mississippi. Shortly before leaving Memphis for Tupelo, I searched on AirBNB for a place to sleep after my gig at Blue Canoe. Rufus, my usual host in Tupelo, was unavailable, which meant searching around for the next-best option.
The next-best option was a bedroom in a “County Home on 2 Acres,” in Guntown. My host accepted my request within a matter of minutes, then gave directions to the house, explaining how to turn off US-45, onto State Route 348, then County Road 417, then onto the dirt road that leads up to the house. This route took me past by burned-out school buses, shoulder-high grass, and clearly abandoned trailers. When I pulled up to the house, I saw the host had three things in the front yard: a half-dead oak tree, a Trump/Pence sign the size of a car door, and a Confederate flag hanging from the tree.
Personally, I believe anyone with a Confederate flag displayed outside a home is making a statement, and that statement is “The people who live here aren’t necessarily racists, but they’re definitely tolerant of racism.” If you don’t believe in the idea of White Privilege, I invite you to consider what would have happened to me had I been anything other than a 6’1″, blue-eyed, brown-haired, English-speaking, American, White male.
Without mentioning either the flag or the campaign sign, I met my host at the door, dropped my bags off in the room where I’d sleep the night, changed my shirt, and headed for Tupelo.
The Blue Canoe is a bar just off Highway 22 and Highway 45, serving local beer, locally-sourced burgers, and showcasing music from all over. The rear wall of the stage features the names of the bands that have played there. You’ll see scores of local and regional acts, with a few recognizable names buried in the cracks. “ALABAMA SHAKES!” in all caps is visible from across the room, though.
Two sets, one burger, and two beers later, I left the bar, and turned North toward Guntown. This is when things began to get terrifying.
At 2 a.m., Guntown is dark. The lack of streetlights make for a remarkably unsettling drive. With the exception of the Jeep’s headlights, and the passing lights of other cars, I was in pitch black. Turning onto the dirt road up to the house where I would sleep, I tripped someone’s porch light trigger, which is what sent the pack of dogs chasing after the car.
Three full-grown and untethered dogs began bounding after the Jeep in the dark, following me right up the driveway. When I parked, the dogs began circling the car, not even barking; just waiting. Generally, I love dogs, and I consider myself pretty agreeable to their presence. Dogs usually like me, too. However, in the dark, a thousand miles from home, in the very middle of nowhere, I was scared shitless.
So, I decided that not letting the dogs smell the fear on me would be wise. I took my belt off, kept the buckle in my hand, and got ready to use the plain end as a whip. I didn’t want to actually hit the poor dogs, but I was ready to smack it against the side of the car to make enough noise to scare them off. This is the last thing I wanted to do, but it looked like the only way to get from the car to the door of the house.
However, when I opened the door to the Jeep, the dogs gathered at the door, and sat down, with tongues out and tails wagging. They were looking for food. I gave them a bit of a granola bar I had stashed in my duffel bags. The following morning, one dog returned to pose for photographs. The South is a complicated place.
Dopeless in Tennessee
Some nights on the road, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had chronic insomnia since I was a teenager. Once a month or so, for whatever reason, I’m completely unable to fall asleep. Usually, I can solve this problem pretty easily by smoking cannabis. Half a bowl of something like Bubblegum Kush or White Widow will put me out in a matter of minutes. I didn’t start smoking with any degree of regularity until a couple years ago, but wish I had started years ago, purely for medicinal reasons.
In the South, though, I refuse to drive with any amount of cannabis in the car. Most of us on the East Coast (more so on the West) are blissfully unaware of the South’s stringent pot laws. While some states just recently passed laws that allow recreational marijuana, most of the South is still pretty harsh on smokers. Alabama, for instance, classifies possession of any amount of marijuana to be used for “other than personal use” as a Class-C felony. You get a mandatory one-year minimum sentence, and can get fined up to $15,000.
On one such night, I went to sleep at 1am, and woke up at 3am, completely unable to fall back asleep. My plan was to read The Girl Who Played With Fire until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I finished the book by 5:30, and was still unable to fall asleep. I decided to dunk my head under a cold faucet, wake myself up, get into the car, and drive East to catch the sunrise. Somewhere on the 100 miles between Chattanooga and Knoxville, the sun came up over the Blue Ridge. I finally got to sleep in Knoxville.
Big Meadows, Skyline Drive
On the last day of the tour, I left my sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews in Blacksburg, and went straight for Shenandoah National Park with the express purpose of getting away from the highway, and into nature. I had to hit the ground running with gigs as soon as I got back to D.C., and only had a few hours left between the road and the first gig toward home. Luckily, the wind in the trees at Big Meadows hid the noises from the highway below. Out in the woods, everything gets quieter.